Scripture consistently makes clear the need to defend the oppressed. The fatherless are without a doubt one of the most helpless and vulnerable populations in the world. But who are the fatherless, and what does it mean to plead their cause?
Of course, the fatherless include those whose fathers died during their childhood. But death isn’t the only contributor. There are more insidious causes, such as willful abandonment and neglect. Between these two factors alone, “an estimated 24.7 million children (33% in the United States) live absent their biological father.” In addition to the millions of children suffering from this reality, millions more experience a father who is physically present but emotionally absent. Many fathers in the home do not carry out their roles as protectors, providers, and leaders. While there are reasons for this that should evoke compassion, they do not diminish the harmful implications on a child.
If we are to bring justice to the fatherless, then we must understand the injustice taking place. Children who grow up in homes with an absent father have a poverty rate of 47.6%, which is 4 times greater than married families. Children who are in single-parent homes are at double the risk of committing suicide. Even more, “71% of high school dropouts are fatherless.” Children without a father are also more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol. Specifically, as teenagers, boys are more likely to engage in crime while girls are more likely to get pregnant. The negative effects of fatherlessness are clear.
Isaiah 1:17 presents the fatherless as a group in need of defense. Isaiah uses the Hebrew word יָתוֹם (yaw-thome´), which is often translated as “the fatherless.” It quite literally means “a bereaved person” or “fatherless (child), orphan.” Various versions of the Bible render the word differently. For example, the ESV and NIV use the word “fatherless,” while the NLT and NASB use the word “orphan.” Both are faithful translations of the same word, and both highlight the vulnerability of a child lacking healthy parental structures. Scripture is abundantly clear in establishing the significance of fatherhood. A father is responsible for protecting, providing for, and leading his family. When a child is fatherless, these needs go unfulfilled (Ephesians 6:4, 1 Timothy 5:8, Proverbs 22:6, Colossians 3:21).
What might it mean to bring justice to the fatherless? The Hebrew word for “bringing justice” in Isaiah 1:17 is שִׁפְט֣וּ (šip̄-ṭū), which comes from the root word meaning literally to judge, or govern. To “bring justice” according to the ESV has also been equated to “defend” their cause (NLT), “obtain” their justice (NASB), or “take up” their cause (NIV). After taking these words into consideration, we get a better sense of what is being commanded here.
As Christians, what can we do? We cannot control the world, nor can we control the lives of others. But there are two things that will help bring justice to the fatherless. The first is a matter of prevention. It is crucial to not contribute to society’s poor treatment of marriage. Marriage is sacred; a mother and father bear equal yet very different calls towards each other and their children. The institution of marriage is established by God and it should be held in high esteem. Men, before getting married and having a family, should search the scriptures to understand the great duty of what it means to be a husband and father. He should understand what it means to love his wife and raise children to the glory of God. Women, if you find yourself seeking marriage, also search the scriptures and wait for a husband who is firmly committed to fulfilling his biblical role in obedience to Christ.
The second way to bring justice to the fatherless is for the Church community to extend a gentle hand. Providing for the seemingly small needs of the single parents you know, donating to charities, as well as considering foster care and adoption are all valuable ways to genuinely plead the cause of the fatherless. Even as we carry out these individual initiatives, we must be careful not to neglect the families and children facing injustice in our present moment. However, we should also acknowledge the reality that some things are outside of our control. Some women have no choice but to raise their children on their own. We must be ready to respond in great respect and compassion. I believe that this is where individual and collective responsibility meet. The Church has the opportunity to respond.
Advocating for the fatherless may look different depending on who you are, but the call remains the same. The consequences of its injustice run deep, but the voice of God through the prophet Isaiah commands us even now—bring justice to the fatherless.